Music

Art in Paradise: Boom Boom Boom Boom

Gardner arts enthusiasts brought John Lee Hooker to town in 1974, and filmed it for posterity.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012
John Lee Hooker plays the Gardner dump in '74

Everything about the production of Cook with the Hook: Live in 1974 is amateurish. The quick cuts between cameras can make your head hurt; a camera sometimes jerks erratically; gray screens and shots of trees and random audience members conspire to create maximum confusion. The sound varies from distorted to acceptable. Oh, and it's in glorious black and white. This is not Austin City Limits.

Yet this is an important document, and a blast to watch. It's amazing it didn't surface before now. Any documentation of a John Lee Hooker performance from the mid-'70s is bound to be rewarding; the bluesman was at the height of his notoriety and his powers. He exudes confidence, looking out from under an impressive hat and a pair of shades. His guitar lines are uniformly straightforward, propelling the music with an irresistible groove and a subtle punch. He seems relaxed but intense, almost cold-blooded as he sings his lines.

The DVD is also quite intriguing as a document of life in the wilds of Massachusetts. The show took place in a particularly unpleasant corner of Gardner: the town dump. In a vintage, if particularly smelly, echo of contemporary Valley arts happenings, an outfit dubbed the Crossroads Concert Group took it upon themselves to put local and national players on a stage at the landfill.

In an article from the Gardner News that appears in the liner notes, it's explained that the group landed Hooker and other performers (Captain Metro, the Wiley Crawford Band, Skyhook, Firewater and Zargut) as part of its second landfill concert series called Down in the Dumps.

It's hard to imagine a similar setting working out so well now, when the borders of landfills are hotly contested and concerns about substances leaking and reeking are paramount. Apparently, concertgoers had few such things on their minds in 1974. Feathered hair, cut-offs and tight T-shirts abound in the audience shots; facial hair and long tresses sprout in all directions. Maybe it was the lack of multimedia distractions or simply a love of live music in the Massachusetts of that era, but it's singularly impressive that the show drew some 6,000 people.

It's also testament to the ingenuity and drive of the Gardner arts community that the show was captured for posterity. Though the '80s were probably the fullest flowering of local access cable channels, in 1974 local cable program director Robert Boyd undertook a full-on filming of Cook with the Hook, complete with three cameras. The dizzying cuts and weird shots are part of the charm of this long-ago concert; that it was captured at all is remarkable.

It can be easy to cast the past of several decades ago as impossibly archaic, to forget that it had its own vital and fully developed media, art scenes and artists full of energy and drive. That they pulled off such grand coups as putting on and filming a massive music fest at the landfill is all the more impressive for the tools they used to do it. Things like calling on one's Facebook friends weren't even in the cards; whipping up a flyer or taking publicity photos required a lot more time, effort and money than they do now. Then there's the matter of lugging the heavy, unwieldy television equipment of 1974 down to the town dump. Hindsight makes the whole business seem Herculean.

It's important to remember just how unusual a document this DVD is when you pop it in. It's important, too, to look past wobbly camera work and weird sound, to raise a glass to the stalwart arts enthusiasts of 1974 when you groove along to the gorgeous strains of "Boom Boom" as it blasts out of your speakers, straight from the Gardner dump of yesteryear.

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I was the chair of the Crossroads Concert Group that organized that concert and can give you full details of the event. We were a bunch of teenagers and twenty somethings that were community activists, musicians, and artists organinzing these shows as fundraising events. It was a noon to midnight show that cost $2 to get in. You left out the Fabulous Rhinestones who actually backed John Lee up. He was playing at the Speakeasy in Cambridge that night, so we able to get him for an afternoon set. He came on around 3pm. He worked out the set list w/ the Rhinestones and away he went. He did his set. We paid him and away he went. The audience really enjoyed his set.

We had the landfill site because the new mayor Steve Erickson, the youngest mayor ever elected I think in the state, and a young Republican in the Romney mold if you ever saw one, didn't want to let us have a more appropriate venue. The year before we had a beautiful 10 acre field that Clarke Stedman, the oldest mayor ever elected in Gardner let us use. He was great to work with. He said find a site and let me know. With Erickson, it was like pulling teeth. Once we checked the site out and found out it had fencing, a somewhat grassy area away from the active landfill, electricity, water, plenty of parking, and not far to go for trash disposal, we were in. We went back to the Mayor and said we'd take it. He was taken aback for sure. He then said that we needed 1 million dollars of liability insurance in order to deter us. This was not new for us.We were back in two days with the bond. He then relented and signed off. We took advantage of the site and called the show, "Down in The Dumps" with a huge sign hung on the fencing of the active landfill.

The porta potty company called us the week before the concert and asked if they could use the porta potties that we had booked because Pres. Nixon was speaking in Limestone, ME which was a SAC base at the time, on the thursday prior to the concert. We said ok as long as we had the toilets on site on the landfill by friday noon in time for the Board of Health final inspection. He said no problem that the Air Force would fly them down to Portsmouth Air Base and would put them on a flatbed and deliver them in time. And that is what they did. Imagine us hanging out at the wall in the center of Gardner when a US Air Force tractor trailer flatbed with an airmen first class stops and asks for directions to the dump. One of us jumps in and directs him. The next day at the concert we're announcing that we had porta potties that Nixon took a dump in. Remember, it was 1974, and MA was the only state that didn't vote for him, because we knew better. My email is phillie@gis.net if anyone wants more details about that show. Philip Leger

Posted by Philip Leger on 6.27.12 at 6:12
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